Exhaling

I did not realize that it had been nearly two months since I posted here. This seems to be the nature of pandemic time – it’s all one big day until you look at the calendar. I got burnt out on the critical thinking and anxiety about politics and the pandemic. I took a breath, but now am back doing volunteer work for voter education, knowing that in another couple of years, elections may have worsening consequences. On top of that, due to a scheduling glitch, I am in the throes of two writing workshops and barely keeping my head above water.

Window iced over with sun glowing through.

Yesterday was the second coldest Valentine’s Day on record in Minnesota. Today, the subzero sun is shining through windows dripping with condensation over ledges of ice that formed last night. Usually, this is the time of year when cabin fever is at its apex, but it feels like doubling down after a nearly year-long quarantine. We’re still holed up, masking, avoiding contact as much as possible. The emotional work of unrelenting communication via email, text, Skype, Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, and even, on occasion, a phone call or letter, is necessary for school and work and for supporting those in our lives that are more isolated.

A friend once said I was the most extroverted introvert they’d ever met. Part of me wanted to let out a wail but I’m exhausted! Lately much of my communication with others has become a tad rote. I don’t know what I’ve said to whom and I’m pretty sure that the lack of recollection on their end renders it all moot. I protest on behalf of silence. The viola player in our house is currently learning cello as well. Never in my life did I imagine that I’d find beautiful music so aggravating. Or that my husband wandering about the house to escape his work desk would be distracting and irritating. I live with some of the more easygoing humans on the planet. They, however, do not. I can’t imagine how it is for families who don’t get along under normal conditions – they’re either undergoing a severe and prolonged intervention or are ghosting their own living rooms.

Sparrows on snow covered branches.

I keep reminding myself each and every day that I have a lot to be grateful for – we’re relatively unscathed in the scheme of things. I try to focus on helping those who are not. Still, it feels like too much now. When it feels like too much, I look to the small moments – warm food, the birds singing outside my window (sparrows, man, they don’t give a shit about the temperature), a nap at just the right moment of the day – with the sun warming my reading chair through those drippy, drippy windows.

One of my February goals was to focus on one long poem for the entire month. I chose “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, because I’ve always liked the lines when I heard them out of context. It has 52 stanzas, so I read a couple each day, and then listen to an audio version. I started with the theory that poets know how to write efficiently and that my own writing could benefit from that. It’s still a theory, but I ran across some lines that hit me in my Buddhist pretensions:

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now,

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Cello leaned up against a bookcase.

Suffice it to say, it is a reminder that all the anxiety in the world, all the imagined possibilities cannot be the focus right now. I need to look around and see what there is to see. I need to value the time when a cello makes the wood floors vibrate. I need to value that my husband still seeks out my company. I think about how my soon-to-be 17-year-old, who is chomping at the bit to be away from her aging and predictable parents, will become a rarity – overcompensating for the independence put on hold these last couple of years. And that silence will perhaps bear down on me oppressively instead as much-missed necessary solitude.

I’ve been forcing myself to meditate in the mornings. Like everything else, there’s an app for it. Mostly though, I focus on breathing deeply and exhaling slowly. There’s a lot of mixed messaging in meditation. Some visualization gurus have you focusing on drawing in breath to the areas of your body that experience tension (although I’d have better luck finding an area that doesn’t!). Or they have you exhaling the “bad” feelings or stress. I’m not sure what I’m doing except reminding myself I’m alive and my pulmonary system is still working which, in this world is a damned good thing. Part of me likes to think of it as a conversion process – taking in the bad and breathing out the good. It’s a literal way of thinking about what I’m putting out into the world.

Winter scene on Lake Superior

With a vaccine a few months or more out for our family, I think about how I want to emerge from this weird little cocoon in which we’ve been living. I think about the muscle memory we lose – how to be around other humans, traveling, attending events, being part of an extended family. Still, it also makes me realize what I don’t want to be, how I no longer want to spend my time. Like breathing in the bad and converting to good, positive energy, I went into quarantine with all my baggage, but I intend on leaving some of it behind. With an end in sight this year, this can become purpose-driven time, if I can rally myself. How do you want to emerge from this time? For now, I’m breathing out and hoping we find out sooner, rather than later.

29 thoughts on “Exhaling

  1. It seems I’m part of the minority who has benefited from this pandemic situation. Personal development on steroids.

    Good poetry (poetry I like) can be so ruthlessly efficient that it’s too much to bear. I’d love to read it on a regular basis but it’s such a dagger to the heart.

    Very nice to see a post from you. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There have been some positives for me – access for me to lectures, classes, and workshops that I might not have otherwise been able to “attend”. But anything we do has been predicated on people in our community who don’t have options – those who work in grocery stores, delivery and essential service employees, so I try to keep the “joys” of quarantine in perspective. Plus, I miss walking with friends and not having to come up with a “strategy” every time I leave the house. And Minnesota. In February. It wears on the heartiest of us!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. All my baggage is on the back burner; virtual schooling’s (grammar, middle, high school) slow Zoom connections / multi-glitches for nearly a year, here — now in the midst of snow & ice keeping all indoors — seems more torture than Plan B (after all is said and thrown). Goal #1: Keep praying that the 4th one’s daycare doesn’t ever have to close — I can’t take any more! It’s good to see you posting again, though!

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    1. I can’t imagine a houseful of kids and how stressful that must be. The noise alone would send me around the bend. I just have a teenager bugging me to drive all the time – when there’s nowhere to go! The only unsolicited advice I have is – everything is temporary. It certainly doesn’t feel like it in the tough moments, I’m sure. I suppose it easier to be sanguine when I just have the older kid, but the medical crisis over the last couple of years with her has made me work a little harder at trying to appreciate the moments – even those when I imagine taking a sledgehammer to the cello. Hang in there!

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    2. So good to wake up to a post from you! I have had some pretty significant health issues (non Covid) and so on the one hand, being forced to remain indoors has helped me. It has given me a chance to recover and start to heal — enforced rest. On the other hand, it’s made having to go to the hospital for tests, treatments and appointments a real nightmare. And now that I am feeling better I am missing human contact and changes of scenery like everyone else and I am feeling the weight of how long it’s been. But I am grateful for the technology that has allowed me (and everyone else) to keep in touch with friends and family, attend meetings and lectures and seminars, visit museums, travel virtually and watch an endless variety of films. Like you I am anxiously awaiting my vaccine — which won’t change anything dramatically, but will add a very good layer of protection. It sounds like your daughter is doing well. That is wonderful news!! Take care Michelle ❤️

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      1. Hi Fransi – sorry to hear you’re been having health issues and hope that you recover sooner rather than later. I’m grateful for technology as well, but I’ve communicated more in the last year than in the last decade. Whew! It’s a lot. I have been enjoying a lot of author events that I normally wouldn’t have access to, so there is that. My daughter is doing well. The scarier time comes later this year, after the treatment ends, but for now, we’re home and we’re healthy and you can’t ask for much more than that (except for spring!). Keep well – so good to hear from you!

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        1. Thanks Michelle. It is a lot, there is no getting around it. Very happy to hear about your daughter. My fingers are crossed. A day at a time, right?

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  3. I appreciated this reflection, Michelle, and the lovely Whitman excerpt. And the frozen beauty of those frigid photos. You probably know this, but there’s a formal meditation technique, tonglen, that comprises breathing in difficult experiences (for ourselves and all who share them) and breathing out the good, sending out what we envision as relief or comfort.

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    1. I think that’s one of the first methods I learned – listening to one of Pema Chodron’s lectures – I just had forgotten what it was called, so thanks for the reference/reminder. When one is overwhelmed by the world, it seems like it could be a first step to feeling like one can somehow make a difference. Good to hear from you, Cate.

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  4. A different kind of “song of myself” there, so nice hearing from you again Michelle with this postcard from Minnesota! Enjoy those well-timed naps and the drip, drip, drip and the vibration of strings on the floor. All threads in that thing you’re knitting, there (just need a cat!). Ha! Be well!

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    1. Hello old friend. Hope you and yours are keeping well, Bill. In the last two years, both our old cats died. I miss them, but with the kid off to college in a year, decided to hold off on pets until we get through some transition. I thought of you the other day, with your affinity for Joyce. Read a couple of stories for my workshops just dense in detail and for me, humor: “We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek and “Goal 666” by Stacey Richter. It’s fun to read those kind of stories in a workshop – it turns out, I have a tendency to find things to be a lot funnier than other people. Either that or I’m so desperate for a laugh that everything is funny. And unlike many of my cohorts, I’m not even high.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah the high + writing thing never worked for me. Best to get the high on life high and it sounds like you’re tapping into it Michelle! Great to reconnect, happy you still think of me! Joyce is a bit of a wanker, would that I could as he did: ha!

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  5. Thank you for this, for the image (pictured and worded) of sparrows, and for the recollection invited of our own two musicians practicing their individual instruments (bass clarinet, violin) for the same high school musical (Sondheim, not Disney!) in their respective rooms in our small house. Ever since, I’ve able to pick out with more precision the separate lines for strings and woodwinds in a way that gave a greater depth to the unified whole — at least for that specific musical. Now if the discipline can be expanded … Thank you for inviting the pondering.

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    1. While I’ve always loved all kinds of music, I understand what you mean about being able to pick out lines now. It makes listening more interesting. I find it’s the same thing with reading now – thinking about POV and tension and all the other things that go into a story.
      As for the sparrows, I was getting a little irritated, since a flock found our feeders about a month ago and have been cleaning us out, even muscling aside the other birds (who I think regard them as fluttering, noisy nuisances at the feeder). Still, to hear them chittering away when it was -25F out just served as a reminder of spring around the corner.

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  6. Interesting post! I am becoming intrigued by the responses to the pandemic. For some, it has been liberating, while for others, another kind of hell. For me, it has been beneficial in many ways, mainly getting some writing done and more reading. Lots of things to appreciate! Your life sounds rich and varied, which is awesome!

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    1. I think like any situation, a person can find the pros and cons. I’m trying to be more adept at focusing on the positives, while being mindful that a lot of it predicates on the essential work of others and a function of privilege. That being said, I love being able to hear authors have conversations with each other or to watch Yo-yo Ma live stream Bach’s solo cello suites. I can’t imagine that many of us won’t emerge out this time with a clearer vision of how we can and prefer to live.

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  7. I listened to your blog today, very nicely done. I laughed at the part where you describe living with easy-going people…and the reverse being yourself. You do self-deprecating very well! I hope you continue to find ways to get through the cold, bitter times (weather/people) until spring arrives. And try really hard not to take an axe to the Cello!

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  8. Very good to see you out there again. I always laugh a little and am grateful.
    You may enjoy trying tonglen:
    Pema Chödrön teaches us “sending and taking,” an ancient Buddhist practice to awaken compassion. With each in-breath, we take in others’ pain. With each out-breath, we send them relief.
    Instructions found on lions roar.
    I view myself as a sort of transmuter in this process; I do note take on the sorrows, but willingly act to soften and remake them into something which may heal itself.
    I seldom follow the breath anymore, but take the small backward step into stillness and silence, as Zen teaches; a few breaths to settle only.
    I look forward to further words from you.
    Kind wishes.

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  9. I was speed walking this afternoon and it occurred to me how little I enjoy rapid transit with a deadline to get home in time for the ‘next’ thing I have to do. I was so focused on keeping the pace brisk, I was head bent and missing all the sights and the approach of other human beings–necessitating that I wear the mask at all times or fear becoming infected before my recent vaccine could take effect. I’ve decided that ‘putting off’ the walk isn’t always my best decision. I was definitely happy to get home in time for the remote doctor appointment, but I did miss the lazy walk we usually have. I’ll try to remember this for the next time I short change my experience in lieu of expediency.

    Not sure whether I’ve actually answered the question you asked. But, the chicken is getting done in the oven and my stomach is telling me it’s about time I go check. So, blame it on my distracted state. I’ll be much more zen on a full tummy.

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